Commentary on “Exodus From Germany”

Larry Pearce

This article is intended to elaborate on certain aspects of an unpublished research paper for the University of Pennsylvania written by my son, Matthew C. Pearce, entitled “Exodus From Germany: German Emigration to America.” He supports the thesis that “the mass exodus out of Germany into North America during the last three centuries was the result of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors in Germany and America” (2). Economic and political forces were pushing while “internal restlessness of the populace and a desire for revolutionary change” were pulling Germans for a new life in a new land. In enlarging upon his evidence, and after a brief discussion of our various family surnames involved, I’ll summarize the writing of cousins William and John Miller and call on certain other historians to fill any voids. What we hope, then, will emerge will be a rather detailed understanding of why so many of our German ancestors came to America.

Our families in the E-Gen series on both my wife Susan’s side, including three Millers, Krause, Baer, Zimmerman, Georg, Speicher, Brenneman, Kurz, Musser, and Mishler, and the Hoffmans on my side, were clearly German-Americans. (I’m not distinguishing here between the various Germanic provinces and German-speaking Switzerland.) Others, such as the Shaffers (originally Shaver) and Bowman (pronounced here BOW—as in the first part of the sound a dog makes—man), are probably German but have been Anglicized past association with their ethnic origins. Sometimes this change of spelling happened at the port of entry with the registrar simply spelling the name as he heard it pronounced. Sometimes, if the registrant could write or sign his name, the recorder couldn’t read it correctly. And, sometimes, although not that we know of in our family, the spellings are purposely changed to better adapt to the new culture. It could be, as in the case of “Miller,” and we’ve discussed this at length in earlier articles, the evolution from “Mueller” was almost automatic, perhaps to simplify the spelling and pronunciation. Ironically, however, as in the case of Bowman and Hoffman, the names were more often than not mispronounced anyway outside the German-American community. In fact, here in Somerset County we still have variations like “Baughman” and “Huffman.” Never the less, it’s fun to discover the occupation or physical reference made in a particular name and wonder how far back and under what conditions these surnames were given. Get a copy of Bill Bryson’s bestseller The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way for an appreciation of how our languages have evolved and how they are still changing.

Miller and Miller begin their history of our ancestors with a disclaimer of sorts: “The Pennsylvania German of today, who seeks to know why his ancestors came to this country some two centuries ago, must survey the history even as far back as the Reformation [1517] and study the conditions and various religious wars which devastated a great part of Germany, but more particularly the Southern part” [referred to as the ‘Palatinate’] (1). The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) began with King Ferdinand II attempting to suppress Protestantism. The Bohemians [Czechs] refused to bow to this newly elected “emperor” and instead followed Frederick, son-in-law of King James I of England and Bible translation fame. Ironically, many of our Krause ancestors carried the Ferdinand and Frederick monikers. They were Lutheran and originated from further north in what was known as Prussia. Frederick was defeated near Prague and fled, leaving his followers open to great persecution. Meanwhile, the northern Protestants followed the lead of Christian IV, King of Denmark, and formed a defensive union against what was termed the “Catholic League.” By 1629 the Danish influence was on the run in Northern Germany as Albert Wallenstein, a wealthy Bohemian, allied himself with Ferdinand. After the Treaty of Lubeck and the dismissal of Wallenstein, Sweden, under King Gustavus Adolphus, was successful in pushing back Ferdinand’s forces. By 1632, after the Battle of Lutzen, the Protestants again controlled Northern Germany, but Adolphus had been slain. Richelieu then aligned France, Sweden, Holland, and the Protestant states of Germany against the Catholics. By 1637 Ferdinand II had died, but was succeeded by his son, Ferdinand III. Richelieu died in 1642, but the war continued until 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia. The German Empire had to give up much of its power while France grabbed more land. Holland and Switzerland became independent states while German Protestantism was free to flourish. Palmer and Colton put it this way: “The Peace of Westphalia represented a general checkmate to the Counter Reformation in Germany. It not only renewed the terms of the Peace of Augsburg (1555), granting each German state the right to determine its own religion, but it added Calvinism [Presbyterian/Congregational ideas] to Lutheranism and Catholicism as an acceptable faith. The dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, which had been advanced by the drawing of internal religious frontiers in the days of Luther, was now confirmed by politics and international law” (127).

Historians have called the Protestant versus Catholic Thirty Years War “one of the dark spots of European history (Miller and Miller 3).” Palmer and Colton describe it as “the croquet game in Alice in Wonderland where the players used the necks of flamingoes for mallets and hedgehogs for balls, too fluctuating, oblique, contradictory, and protracted to be recounted in any details. Yet it was the greatest of all European wars before the time of the French Revolution” (123). When it was all said and done, our own Lutheran Protestant ancestors, like the Millers and Krauses, probably participated in the oppression and persecution their own reformers, also our ancestors. Followers of Menno Simons (1492-1559) were severely persecuted because they, like the English Quakers [see “Our Quaker Beginnings”] refused to take oaths and serve in the military. Mennonites believed in adult baptism, thus the category of “Anabaptist,” or re-baptism. As today’s old order Mennonite and Amish, they wore plain clothes and refused modern tools and conveniences. Many fled to Switzerland’s Emmenthal Region before coming to America. Many of our Somerset County Amish Mennonites like the Millers, Speichers, Brennemans, Mussers, and Mishlers, first farmed in Berks County, near Lancaster, eastern Pennsylvania.
As they do in most wars, the farmers and peasants suffered greatly during those times. Their lives and livelihoods were conducted in the open, away from fortresses and armed guards. Not unlike our Scottish ancestors, our German predecessors’ farms were ripe for the picking by soldiers and armies on both sides of every conflict: livestock, dairy products, produce, whatever the advancing soldiers needed, including housing. Miller and Miller say:
Rural people lived in a state of great prosperity. Their homes were comfortable, their barns large and well filled, they were owners of excellent horses and cattle, their crops were plenteous, and it is said that many of these farmers and rural people had money stored away for old age. [But,] horses and cattle were carried away [during the wars] by the various armies which shifted back and forth over the length and breath of the land; houses crops and barns were burned, those owners of farms who were thought to possess money and valuables were subjected to fiendish tortures in order that they might discover the hiding place of their gold, silver-plate and valuables. At the approach of a hostile army, the whole village would take to flight, and would live for weeks or months in the forest or marshes or in caves. When the enemy had departed, these poor famished people would return to their homes and try to carry on an existence with what remained of their former property until a new invasion would occur and the same thing would be repeated with more severe devastation. Many were slain, many of the young able-bodied men were lured away to swell the ranks of the opposing armies. Many fled to cities for safety and never returned to their native villages. The country, which had shortly before been so prosperous, was now a wilderness of uncultivated land marked here and there by the black ruins which designated the sight of former farms and villages. (5)

It is believed that in parts of Germany some farms had been in families for 30 generations, but when the great war came everything changed. The County of Hennenburg, for example, lost the following during the Thirty Years War:
• 75 % of its inhabitants,
• 60 % of its buildings,
• 80 % of the horses,
• 85 % of the goats, and
• 83 % of the cattle. (Miller and Miller 5)

Some historians blame this uncivil behavior on mercenary troops who received little support from their home governments. The back and forth positioning found Magdeburg besieged on ten different occasions. Leipzig exchanged hands five times. The story lives on of a small Bohemian town of 6,000 residents, totally ransacked with her citizens put to flight. Eight years after the peace, only 850 people had returned to claim their properties. The Swedish cavalry reported finding only wolves at the site of another village. Palmer and Colton point out:
The peasants, murdered, put to flight or tortured by soldiers to reveal their few valuables, ceased to give attention to farming; agriculture was ruined, so that starvation followed, and with it came pestilence. Even revised modern estimates allow that in many extensive parts of Germany as much as a third of the population may have perished. The effects of fire, disease, undernourishment, homelessness, and exposure in the 17th century were the more terrible because of the lack of means to combat them. People lived in piles of debris and ransacked dumps to find food, as they did after the Second World War. (131)

The war had nearly bankrupted the country, and just as the farmers were struggling to return to normal, according to the Miller sources, “Costly palaces were built, rivaling and even surpassing the luxuries of France and other countries; enormous retinues were maintained while the Protestants and native owners of land were burdened with taxes and various other forms of oppression” (6). This was feudalism gone awry: extortion at a national level. And most all of Europe was planting flags in other lands to get even more revenue. A century and a half of colonialism, civil war and revolution followed, from Great Britain (1739) to America (1776) to France (1789). In Central Europe two great empires emerged: the Austrian Hapsburg (1648-1740), which regained control over the Ottoman Turks in the south, and the Prussian Brandenburg in the north, which can be traced back to the Hohenzollern family in1417 and continued to grow until Germany’s defeat in World War I.

Our earliest German-American immigrant ancestors were the Anabaptist Brennemans and Speichers who farmed eastern Pennsylvania in the late 17th Century before finally settling in southern Somerset County. They probably traveled the National Pike through parts of Maryland, now Rts. 40 and 68. Research is ongoing, and we’re attempting to develop a dateline of our families’ immigration [see “Comin’ to America”], but no doubt war was abhorrent to their way of life. That was the “push” factor mentioned in our introduction. Today, they raise children and farm in our Amish community as they have for hundreds of years. It has been said that the fertile rolling hills between the mountains of Somerset County reminded them of the Palatinate and Switzerland. Add that to the freedom to worship in William Penn’s “Holy Experiment” and you have the “pull” factor.

Joseph “Yost” Miller (1748-1811) arrived in America in 1754 and also farmed eastern Pennsylvania. But, he brought his young family to the more rugged central Somerset County in 1784, no doubt traveling the Forbes Road, now Rt. 30 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike. That was the year of the Ft. Stanwix Treaty, opening lands west of the Alleghenies to settlement, but that didn’t mean pioneer life on the western Pennsylvania frontier was easy [see “An Introduction to Nine Generations of Millers in Pennsylvania”].

The last of our German ancestors to come to America were the Krauses in 1871 [see “An Introduction”]. They settled perhaps the most beautiful of all the wilderness farmland, a peaceful valley just south of the Mason-Dixon Line called “The Cove.” They had everything they needed to raise their eleven children, rich soil for crops, lots of pasture for livestock, a trading post for supplies just up over the hill along the National Highway, and of course their German-speaking community complete with a Lutheran church adjacent to their property.

Indeed, as Matthew Pearce has argued, economic and political factors were pushing our German ancestors to America while a certain restlessness and hope for a better life was pulling them. Yes, their descendants have populated every corner of America, as that restlessness has continued to stir, but I feel fortunate today to still live within an hour’s drive of all of our “first comers.” Oh, we’ve had strife in these mountains. There was the Indian threat for a while, and don’t forget that a young President George Washington sent his first Federal troops to quash the farmers’ Whiskey Rebellion here, but I believe that our quality of life is unequalled anywhere else in the world. Freedom and prosperity, however you measure it, is an unbeatable combination.

Works Cited

Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue: English & How it Got That Way. New York: Avon, 1990.

Miller, William H. and John S. Miller. A Brief History of Yost (Joseph) and Jeremiah Miller and Their Descendants. Johnstown, PA: Benshoff Printing Co., c. 1920.

Palmer, R. R., and Joel Colton. A History of the Modern World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966.

Schom, Alan. Napoleon Bonaparte. New York: Harper Collins, 1997.

4 Responses to Commentary on “Exodus From Germany”

  1. I had been searching about your topic, “Commentary on “Exodus From Germany” | E-GEN ~ an Electronic Genealogy” at one of the other forums I retain in my website reader. You’re more or less in complete agreement with them. It is not what I assumed, nevertheless I’m realizing now that I’m probably completely wrong… fascinating..

  2. Roberta Burnett says:

    I’ve scanned the text above. One question: if some Baers or Bergs remained in Germany and came here in the early 1900s, would your family had known of it in every case? My grandmother Anna Berg had a grandmother Rosa Baer and a son Rudolf Berg who was illegitimate (and much loved by me). Rosa might have reared both Anna and Rudolf. She’d been widowed, lived in Baden Baden, Bayern. She came here with Rudolf in 1911; Anna immigrated in 1907.
    I don’t know if they were Christian or Jewish.

    • admin says:

      As you can see from the Baer-associated families, we all came to America much earlier, even settling in eastern PA for a time and intermarrying with other German and Swiss families. I see that some Baers there were spelled Bear and some Bergs were Bergers, so tracing is sometimes difficult. I don’t know if our Baers and Bergers kept touch with relatives in the old world, but I’m certain they were all Christians, some even strict Anabaptists. I’ll certainly keep an eye out for your Baers and Bergers of Baden Baden, Bayern. Thanks for writing.

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